Lent 9

The National Gallery website says that the tool in this detail is ‘a pick’. It is not a pick. It is an auger, used by carpenters to make holes in wood, and as there is a plank of wood in the detail that would make perfect sense. The line at the bottom is the frame of the painting, so the plank, or beam, enters the painting at a diagonal. It is resting on the ground some way below the painting itself – and you can tell that because the shadow of the plank (or beam) enters the painting just to the right. The plank and shadow will meet where the plank is resting on the ground. So, for whatever reason, this plank is being lifted off the ground in between the legs of whoever is reaching for the tool. It doesn’t augur well. He might have a nasty accident.

The carpenter’s legs are clad in red – presumably fairly tight-fitting hose, which are not exactly the same as tights, although a bit more like stockings, as each leg is separate. They were worn by men, and thickened at the feet, often with an in-built leather sole. You can certainly see a seam passing across his achilles tendon and then under the ankle. But then it gets a bit confused – the foot is foreshortened, and reaches all the way to the toe, but overlaps with some green fabric. It is not clear now whether the toe was supposed to be under the green drapery, or treading on it, but, as far as I can see, the foot was painted after the fabric. This suggestion might be confirmed by the fact that pink is more likely to fade than green. What we are looking at is a form of pentimento – the word used when an artist changes his (or her) mind (as if they have ‘repented’ of what they did before) and the change becomes visible when the painting ages. You could argue that this might not be a pentimento, as it might not be a change of mind. It could easily be bad planning. Having designed the image, and then transferred the drawing to the painting surface, the artist then might have got carried away with the green fabric and it spread too far, so that there was nowhere for this man to plant his feet. We’d have to have a look at the underdrawing to get a better idea, but as that is under the painted surface we would need an infrared reflectogram… but let’s not get too technical about it.

The position and angle of the plank is clearly designed to lead our eye into the painting, and the shadow does the same. It also enhances the sense that we are part of the same reality as what is beyond the frame: the light appears to enter the painting from our space, and casts a shadow of the plank on the imaginary floor. I would suggest that, whatever this painting is, and wherever it was originally intended to go, there would have been a window behind us, above and to the left of our left shoulders. It is another thing about the painting (after Lent 4) which makes me think of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck: the fall of light, and the casting of shadows – from the frame itself, apparently – in the Annunciation on the outside of the wings. Here is a detail, simply because, as I’ve said before, I love the details from the Closer to Van Eyck website. Maybe I should do another Van Eyck lecture (I know, I’ve done a few…). This is the hem of Gabriel’s skirts, on the left panel of the four that make up the Annunciation, and the shadow of the frame is in the bottom right-hand corner. It is far more diffuse than the shadow of the plank, but then there are several windows in the chapel for which the Ghent Altarpiece was painted, so light is coming from several slightly different directions.

Another similarity with the van Eyck is the use of perspective, not systematic or rigidly geometrical, but a visual approximation, which nevertheless has the required effect. In both cases, like the plank it leads our eye into the painting, and gives us the sense of entering a real space. All of this helps us to believe that the story the artist is telling is real. So tomorrow, we shall start with the story. But I’ll leave you with a couple of bonus pictures: a pen and ink drawing of a man using an auger by Albrecht Dürer from the end of the 15th Century, and a detail of painting by Georges de la Tour of The Carpenter St Joseph, also using an auger, from 1642 (and yes, that is Jesus with the candle). Notice how the hands are placed to turn them. These are not picks.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

12 thoughts on “Lent 9

  1. They are almost like thigh boots, he has rolled the left one down to his knee. The rest of his outfit when we get to see it is quite fancy apart from his cycling shorts (I have now identified the painting). The auger made me think of Joseph in the Merode Altarpiece although I think he has moved on to a carpenter’s brace but is that an auger on the bench behind him, it is a painting I would like to hear you on.

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    1. Thank you – I knew there was another somewhere else (quite a few, as it happens) – but I couldn’t quite place the Merode… perhaps as Joseph is now using a drill. In a month’s time it will be the Feast of the Annunciation. Maybe I should look at it then (even though we’ll still be knee-deep in Lent!) And yes – all of the outfits are surprisingly elaborate, and colourful for Lent, even the ones worn by the apparently rough and ready.

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  2. Seeing the auger and your reference to augur reminded me of the Millais painting of Christ in his parents house with Joseph in his workshop and the young Christ with the stigmata on his upturned hand

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  3. Yes – they occur in many medieval and renaissance paintings, and Millais would have done his research – not only that, but I suspect the tools hadn’t changed much by the time Millais was painting, even though the world was well into the machine age. And finding one in this painting just proves my point that you see what you are looking for! Thank you.

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  4. It does repay a closer look, doesn’t it. Perhaps too obvious to have some planks arrayed just so, but Millais’ auger does have a look of the cross about it.

    I’d never noticed before the plate on the sill of the semicircular window (with water for the birds, like a piscina?) or the shaduf in the field behind the flock. Does that have a meaning, or this one of those times when a thing just a thing?

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  5. I love the etymology of auger. The link between the nave of a church and a ship is there in the word.

    Old English nafogār, from nafu -ship- + gār ‘piercer’. The n was lost by wrong division of a nauger ; compare with adder and apron/ napkin etc.

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    1. This is really interesting, but I think the ‘nave’ connection is coincidental. As far as I can see the Old English nafu leads to nave as the hub of a wheel, as opposed to the nave of a church which comes from navis, a ship…. ‘Auger’ would come form nafu + gar implying ‘hub piercer’ – and gives the sense of the rotation. However, a coincidence doesn’t stop there being a connection! I’m not an etymologist, though, and I hadn’t thought about this before, so thank you very much!

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  6. Hi I have recently discovered your blog and so am catching up with the details from the mystery painting. At Lent 9 I have discovered the art work which is completely amazing. Thank you so much for doing this type of art history, it is so interesting and enjoyable. Will start on Advent next, a bit back to front but never mind.

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